The Collector’s Life: The Mexican Spitfire – Lupe Velez and Hollywood’s Ultimate Indignity


Lupe in East Is West (1930)
Lupe in East Is West (1930)

 

Amidst the sunshine and palm trees of Beverly Hills are deep shadows, some of which have lingered for a very long time. Where North Rodeo Drive intersects with Sunset Boulevard is the garish confection known as the Beverly Hills Hotel. Opened in 1912, it has hosted just about every Hollywood celebrity since the silent film era; the only reason more scandals and tragedies associated with the Pink Palace aren’t better known is the cone of silence maintained by management, an institutionalised gossip vacuum which has snapped a lid tighter than Tupperware down on its influential and highly-valued guests.

Guided tours of the immediate area point out the public park just across the road where pop star George Michael indiscreetly answered a very different call of nature in 1998 into the arms of a waiting policeman; the house of Linden Drive where, in 1947, gangster Bugsy Siegel was gunned down in the lounge room of his girlfriend’s home; the cosy suburban cottage where another hard man, mob enforcer Johnny Stompanato (who, coincidentally, worked for Mickey Cohen, the man who took over Siegel’s operations) was stabbed to death by fourteen-year-old Cheryl Crane, daughter of actress Lana Turner in 1958.

And within walking distance from all of these is a location on North Rodeo, now much changed, where, on a chilly evening a few weeks before Christmas 1944, a beautiful and talented thirty-six-year-old actress decided she’d had enough. Dressed in blue silk pajamas, she retired to bed with a nightcap of 80 Seconals and a glass of brandy, and was ushered into that strange, dark and enduring kind of immortality that only Hollywood can generate.

I came to know Lupe Velez not through her movies, many of which I’ve since had the privilege to discover, but from a collection of vintage publicity photos. I’ve been collecting such items since the mid-1970s but it’s not been until on-line auction sites like eBay opened up the market that the truly choice stuff has become readily available, especially to someone as far removed as Australia.

Lupe in an MGM publicity shot circa 1931
Lupe in an MGM publicity shot circa 1931

On visits to Los Angeles, my first stop would generally be my favourite showbiz bookstore, Larry Edmunds (founded by Larry himself in 1938; in true Hollywood underbelly fashion, he exited life with his head in a gas oven just three years later. The store, however, continued under his name). On Hollywood Boulevard, a few blocks from the corner of Vine, it holds somewhere around 500,000 photos, 6,000 movie posters and 20,000 movie and theatre books.

It’s in a part of Hollywood that’s ground zero for any serious movie fan, with a heritage that stretches back to the very earliest days of orange groves and nitrate stock. Within a few minutes’ walk is the restored 1923 Egyptian Theatre, now operated by the American Cinematheque as one of its LA revival houses (the other being the Aero in Santa Monica); the Musso & Frank Grill, opened in 1919, where such writers as Raymond Chandler and F. Scott Fitzgerald were regulars and where I dined on one visit with cult 70s director, Monte Hellman; Boardner’s, a classic 1940 cocktail bar that has changed little since Robert Mitchum and Ed Wood (possibly wearing a fetching angora sweater and pearls; no jaunty scarf) would knock back shots (it’s so unashamedly dowdy and original, it was used in LA Confidential without very little set dressing needed); and Micelli’s, dating back to 1949 with the best spaghetti and meatballs around.

Larry Edmunds was always good for movie stills, even if they were modern restrikes. Later, on eBay, I would uncover a couple of reputable sellers of wonderful vintage photos at ridiculously good prices (see my earlier blog –  https://davidlatta.org/2013/09/19/the-collectors-life-lester-glassner-and-the-nobility-of-the-continuum/ ).

Hence, like Pete Seeger, we turn, turn, return to Lupe Velez. As I mentioned, I didn’t know a lot about her when I bought these photos but they were so beautiful and the prices so very right I couldn’t resist.

With E. Alyn Warren in East Is West (1930)
With E. Alyn Warren in East Is West (1930)

What I did know was from recent rescreenings of her Mexican Spitfire series on late-night television. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

María Guadalupe Villalobos Vélez was born in San Luis Potosi, in north-central Mexico, in 1908. She was dancer who came to the United States to further a show business career. She was young, beautiful and extremely exotic, qualities that worked in her favour when she was asked to do a screen test for MGM.

Although that didn’t pan out, she was hired by Hal Roach for a Laurel & Hardy comedy, Sailor Beware (1927). With a vivacious and comedically combative nature, Lupe’s star rose quickly and by the time silent film was being supplanted by sound, she was a leading lady. In the pre-Code years, she became even more popular. This was despite Hollywood producers not displaying an overly evolved vision of her possibilities; her Latin heritage and accent had her playing largely ethnic roles although on occasion they veered towards the ridiculous (Russian, American Indian, even Asian; in East Is West (1930), she played Chinese as did that other well-known ethnic actor, Edward G. Robertson).

While she handled drama well, and she could sing and dance with the best of them, she really shone in comedy, gleefully overplaying her Mexican heritage into something of a caricature. Fiery and argumentative with a motor mouth capable of paralysingly-funny malapropisms (“You’ve been trifling with my afflictions,” she angrily informs one unsuitable suitor), the peak of her comedy was undoubtedly the Mexican Spitfire series produced by RKO in the 1940s.

East Is West (1930)
East Is West (1930)

From the early efforts, The Girl From Mexico (1939) and its sequel, The Mexican Spitfire (1940), the series encompassed eight movies and, although largely featuring the same plots, are great fun. It’s interesting to compare Lupe with Sofia Vergara of television’s Modern Family and trace the lineage of kooky, Spanglish-challenged south-of-the-border media portrayals through the decades, from Lupe via Carmen Miranda and Charro to the present day. Some things, it seems, never change.

It’s difficult to know just how close Lupe’s on-screen character was to her own but some clues lie in her often stormy relationships. She was romantically linked with many men including silent movie star John Gilbert. She married Johnny Weissmuller, the Olympic gold medal swimming champion and on-screen Tarzan (who, legend has it, a Hollywood executive discovered by the swimming pool of the Beverly Hills Hotel) in 1933. Lupe and Johnny were a volatile combination. They divorced in 1939.

However, Lupe’s great love was Gary Cooper, who she met on the set of the 1929 silent movie, The Wolf Song. Again, it was a relationship that proved rocky, prone to violent arguments and physical confrontations; when Cooper had an affair with Marlene Dietrich on the set of Morocco (1930), Lupe famously threatened murder and most probably would have if the mood had seriously taken her.

Despite her best intentions, it seemed Lupe’s temper as much as her temperament drove any chance of love and happiness from her. She made another bad choice with married Austrian actor, Harald Maresch. In 1944, she found herself pregnant and alone and in December took the fatal overdose that also claimed the life of her unborn child.

With tiger cubs, promoting Kongo (1932)
With tiger cubs, promoting Kongo (1932)

It’s barely worth mentioning Kenneth Anger’s Hollywood Babylon and his treatment of this sad episode but it’s there if anyone cares to look.

Whether she meant to end it all, had had enough and wanted the pain to stop or if it was a cry for help that went unanswered, we’ll never know. There are some who suggest that, today, Lupe would be diagnosed bipolar.

What is possible is that Lupe Velez, in modern times largely forgotten (aside from Kenneth Anger’s sordid Grand Guignol spin on her passing), is well on the way to being rediscovered. Australian author Michelle Vogel’s Lupe Velez: The Life and Films of Hollywood’s “Mexican Spitfire” was published in 2012. The film rights have been optioned and a biopic is planned, produced by and starring Ana de la Reguera (Cowboys and Aliens).

In the meantime, enjoy these wonderful old photos of Lupe and seek out her films. I’m sure you’ll agree she was remarkable and certainly didn’t deserve what happened to her – during her life and after.

Words © David Latta

Photographs from the author’s own collection

Will The Real Holly Golightly Please Stand Up: Truman Capote Mines His Friendships For Art


Truman Capote As A Young Man

If ever there was a subject worthy of a Broadway musical, it would be the coterie of elegant swans that surrounded Truman Capote. Beautiful, stylish and inevitably wealthy, they came from all manner of backgrounds but what they had in common was that New York City was their world and the world was their playground, much as it was his.

That Capote could charm such creatures was no real surprise. His wit, as sharp and entangling as razor wire, was the perfect accompaniment to every dinner party and social soiree.

When Breakfast At Tiffany’s appeared in the pages of Esquire magazine in November 1958, the burning question became: who was the real Holly Golightly? Even more pressing, amongst his circle of friends and admirers, was – could it be one of us?

Early in Capote’s novella, the unnamed narrator meets one of Holly’s friends, a West Coast agent by the name of O.J. Berman. He tells the story of “discovering” a 15-year-old Holly at the Santa Anita racetrack in Los Angeles. She was involved with a jockey at the time and, despite thick glasses and an almost impenetrable Okie accent, he detected certain qualities that could have made her a star.

“…it took us a year to smooth out that accent,” Berman confides. “How we did it finally, we gave her French lessons; after she could imitate French, it wasn’t so long that she could imitate English. We modelled her along the Margaret Sullivan type, but she could pitch some curves of her own, people were interested….”

Babe Paley photographed by Horst P. Horst

Berman arranges her to test for an upcoming movie, The Story of Dr Wassell, starring Gary Cooper and directed by Cecil B. DeMille. The day before she’s due to audition, Berman gets a phone call from Holly saying she’s in New York and has no intention of returning.

This is one of the principal clues towards identifying the real Holly. There actually was a Story of Dr Wassell, with Cooper and DeMille, which was released in 1944. Gerald Clarke in Capote: A Biography (1988) ventures that this was a reference to Doris Lilly, described as a “tall, pretty, streak-blonde starlet”. Wassell is Lilly’s only Internet Movie Database entry, where she is rather ingloriously listed as “Civilian (Uncredited)”.

Lilly went on to become a journalist and author, best known for her 1951 bestseller, How To Marry A Millionaire. Interestingly, the 1953 movie adaptation co-starred Marilyn Monroe, a close of friend of Capote, who had futilely championed her as Holly in the film version of Breakfast At Tiffany’s.

Lilly was interviewed by George Plimpton for his 1998 book, Truman Capote: In Which Various Friends, Enemies, Acquaintances and Detractors Recall His Turbulent Career.

“There was a lot of wondering about who the original Holly Golightly was,” she said. “Pamela Drake and I were living in this brownstone walk-up on East 78th Street, exactly the one in Breakfast At Tiffany’s. Exactly. Truman used to come over all the time and watch me put make-up on before I went out…There’s an awful lot of me in Holly Golightly. There is much more of me than there is of Carol Marcus and a girl called Bee Dabney, a painter. More of me than either of these two ladies. I know.”

C.Z. Guest photographed by Cecil Beaton

Carol Marcus had fallen in with a teenage Capote in the early 1940s and introduced him to a circle of friends, including Oona O’Neill (daughter of playwright Eugene O’Neill, who married a 54-year-old Charlie Chaplin when she was 18 years old) and heiress Gloria Vanderbilt and the group prowled such celebrated nightclubs as El Morocco and the Stork Club.

Marcus had a short-lived career in Hollywood as Carol Grace; she was best known for marrying author William Saroyan twice (the first time when she was just 16) and then actor Walter Matthau. “I married Saroyan the second time because I couldn’t believe how terrible it was the first time. I married Walter because I love to sleep with him,” she later said.

Bee Dabney was an artist who was briefly engaged to George Plimpton although it ended badly; she ran off with a man she met at the engagement party.

With the hardcover publication of Breakfast At Tiffany’s, Capote’s career soared further and, inevitably, the search for the real Holly became more frantic. A woman who shared Holly’s surname sued Capote for $800,000 but the suit quickly stalled. Capote was quoted as saying: “It’s ridiculous for her to claim she is my Holly. I understand she’s a large girl nearly 40 years old. Why, it’s sort of like Joan Crawford saying she’s Lolita.”

(As an aside, it’s interesting to note that Doris Lilly would later become a close friend of Crawford, from 1967 living in the same apartment block.)

Gloria Guinness

Capote himself was not beyond muddying the waters to maintain interest in his most famous creation. In a 1968 Playboy interview, he spun an elaborate story about the real Holly being a German immigrant he met when they both lived in the same brownstone on the Upper East Side.

Another interesting clue comes by way of another of Capote’s friends, author James A. Michener, whose novel Tales Of The South Pacific (1947) was adopted as a Broadway musical and subsequent movie, South Pacific. In an essay penned as the foreword for Lawrence Grobel’s Conversations With Capote (1985), Michener tells of a woman he firmly believed to be the model for Holly. Although he doesn’t name her, he describes her as “…stunning would-be starlet-singer-actress-raconteur from the mines of Montana. She had a minimum talent, a maximum beauty, and a rowdy sense of humour. Also, she was six feet, two inches tall, half a head taller than I, a head and a half taller than Truman.”

This occasioned a competition between Michener and Capote for the woman’s affections, although she leaned (in more ways than one) more towards Capote. “They made a stunning pair, this statuesque miner’s daughter soaring above the heavens, this rotund little gnome dancing along beside her,” Michener wrote.

As an accompaniment to his celebrity status, Capote undoubtedly loved the attention as much as the scarlet swirl of notoriety that swept along the discussion of Holly’s origins.

In all probability, Holly was a mix of many women. A little of this one, some more of that one. Doris Lilly, Carol Marcus, Michener’s unnamed companion, Capote’s mother, Capote’s own idealised alter ego, and maybe even splashes of his very own coterie of gorgeousness he called his “swans” which included Gloria Guinness, Babe Paley, C.Z. Guest, and Slim Keith.

Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast At Tiffany's

Capote’s fiction draws so heavily from his own life and the people he knew that sorting the real from the imaginary is a Herculean task. In his most famous work, the 1966 In Cold Blood, he approached this from a different angle, creating an ambitious mix of real-life events and improvised reportage that, for want of a better description, was labelled a non-fiction novel.

Yet, unknown to anyone, let alone the beguiling members of New York society who had allowed this strangely beautiful interloper into their lives, he had another agenda. He was planning a literary masterpiece peopled with his friends and foes. In essence, he’d been planning it even before he finished Breakfast At Tiffany’s, giving it the title of Answered Prayers.

He finally signed a contract for it in 1966, hot on the heels of In Cold Blood; deadlines, however, came and went, contracts were renegotiated and it wasn’t until the mid-1970s that a couple of unconnected chapters appeared in Esquire.

By that time, Capote was well used to people quizzing him about whether they would appear in the book, whether they could expect literary glorification or abject and enduring humiliation. The longer the project meandered, the more it seemed the result would be the latter rather than the former. He was well aware of, and even delighted in, the power he held. When the question inevitably arose, he would tease: “Not yet but, like Forest Lawn  cemetery, I’ve reserved a plot for you”.

When Esquire printed these tantalising glimpses in 1975-76, it made for turgidly compulsive reading. The overall effect was to rankle his social circle. Secrets that had been shared with him, sometimes over decades, made their way into print. Mojave was a thinly-disguised tale of one of his closest and oldest friends, Babe Paley and her husband, television executive William S. Paley. Le Cote Basque followed; if Mojave was a snide aside in a crowded room, Le Côte Basque, which referred to a fashionable restaurant preferred by New York society, was a screaming hissy fit that, however artfully, made public all manner of indiscretions.

Doris Lilly

Babe never talked to Capote again, the real-life model for one of the main characters committed suicide and New York society turned their elegant backs en masse. He had driven his swans away. By the end of the decade, Capote was alone with the demons that had always haunted him, increasingly filtered by prescription drugs and alcohol.

Answered Prayers was never to see publication beyond the chapters that originally appeared in Esquire. Through the late 70s and early 80s, whenever questioned about its progress, he continued to obfuscate. Close to the time he died in 1984, he even handed a close friend a safety deposit box key, claiming it held the completed manuscript. No trace of it was ever found.

Words © David Latta